When Arsène Wenger reflects on 2011, the word "crisis" tumbles readily from his lips. The beginning of the season was as gloomy a period as many Arsenal supporters can remember, with the threat of a chaotic end to the Wenger era feeling very real. The manager, though, remembers a darker time and it was from the very same calendar year.
"The end of last season was, I think, more difficult than even the rocky time we had at the beginning of the season because it was all doom and gloom and only negatives," Wenger said. "The last two months of last season … you will not win the Champions League, you will not win the Premier League, you will not win the FA Cup. You just have to get over the line as well as you can. That was difficult. This season, we had a hard, tough time but we had something in front of us. We could still fight for something."
If the fatal blows that the team suffered in all four competitions last time out, beginning with the Carling Cup final defeat by Birmingham City, left their mark, then Wenger has maintained that the club's strife early this season was retrievable. The lows have been inked indelibly on to the season's narrative — the losses of Cesc Fábregas and Samir Nasri; the 8-2 defeat at Manchester United; the defensive shambles at Blackburn Rovers on 17 September that reduced them to 16th in the table. But through it all Wenger kept the faith, defending his squad at every turn, never more passionately than at the AGM on 27 October. After this largely comfortable win over Queens Park Rangers, which lifted Arsenal into the Champions League places, there were, not for the first time, traces of vindication emanating from Wenger, even if the lessons of recent history dictate that they must be tempered. Despite the team's rise from the brink, the season essentially remains on a knife-edge.
Wenger hopes his players can be stronger for the collective pain that they have endured but his reasons for new year's optimism were persuasive. Arsenal have played away at the Manchester clubs, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea, yet all four have still to visit the Emirates. Arsenal's home form will be decisive.
They travel to Fulham on Monday having taken 29 points from an available 36 and the majority of their long-term injury victims, namely Jack Wilshere, Bacary Sagna and Kieran Gibbs, are only three or four weeks from returns. Wilshere's comeback offers the most tantalising possibilities. And then there is Robin van Persie. He is still fit and, while that is the case, the goals will flow. His winner against QPR gave him 35 from 36 Premier League games in 2011.
"I didn't know that we would be in the top four at the end of the year," Wenger admitted. "I felt, first of all, to stop the crisis. By crisis, I mean the confidence level had dropped too much and you play with fear. But I was confident because we had a good spirit. I knew as well that we had the Champions League to play so we had something to focus on and that's why, slowly, we came back. When I look back, it was not the easiest year of my career. I had a few hard years but this one was difficult."
Rangers could reflect upon a defining year in which they won promotion to the Premier League after a 15-year absence but their manager, Neil Warnock, had thoughts only for the problems of the present. He admitted that his squad was "short in certain areas" and that he had been "looking forward to the January transfer window for a number of weeks".
"The quicker we can get players in the better," Warnock said ahead of Monday's visit of Norwich City. "The next 10 matches are vital. We've got a tough run-in over the last six weeks."
Man of the match Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal).